Work in Sports
A Reminder of What We Can Be
The stirring upset victory by the 1980 U.S. hockey team made those Olympians our Sportsmen of the Year
Posted: Friday February 18, 2000 06:15 PM
By E.M. Swift
Issue date: Feb. 21, 1994
The impact was the thing. One morning they were 19 fuzzy-cheeked college kids and a tall guy with a beard, and the next … We beat the Russians! In Babbitt, Minn., hometown of forward Buzz Schneider, guys went into their backyards and began firing shotguns toward the heavens. Kaboom! Kaboom! We beat the Russians! In Santa Monica, Calif., a photographer heard the outcome of the game and went into his local grocery store, a mom-and-pop operation run by an elderly immigrant couple. ''Guess what,'' he said. ''Our boys beat the Russians.'' The old grocer looked at him. ''No kidding?'' Then he started to cry. ''No kidding?''
In Winthrop, Mass., 70 people gathered outside the home of Mike Eruzione, who had scored the winning goal, and croaked out the national anthem. Not God Bless America, which is what the players were singing in Lake Placid. The Star-Spangled Banner.
One man was listening to the game in his car, driving through a thunderstorm, with the U.S. clinging to a 4-3 lead. He kept pounding his hands on the steering wheel in excitement. Finally he pulled off the highway and listened as the countdown started … 5 … 4 … 3 … 2 … 1 … We beat the Russians! He started to honk his horn. He yelled inside his car. It felt absolutely wonderful. He got out and started to scream in the rain. There were 10 other drivers yelling their fool heads off in the rain. They made a huddle, and then they hollered together -- We beat the Russians! Perfect strangers dancing beside the highway with 18-wheelers zooming by and spraying them with grime.
We. The U.S. Olympic hockey team wasn't a bunch of weird, freaky commando types. They were our boys. Clean-cut kids from small towns, well-groomed and good-looking, who loved their folks and liked to drink a little beer. Our boys. Young men molded by a coach who wasn't afraid to preach the values of the good old Protestant work ethic, while ever prepared to stuff a hockey stick down an offending opponent's throat. And don't think that didn't matter, given the political climate at the time -- the hostages, Afghanistan, the pending Olympic boycott of the Moscow Games.
But there was more to the story than the moment of victory.
The members of the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team weren't named Sportsmen of the Year because of the 60 minutes they played one Friday afternoon in February. The game with the Soviet Union meant nothing to the players politically. Even its impact was largely lost on them until much later, confined as they were to the Olympic Village in Lake Placid, listening to one dinky local radio station and reading no newspapers. ''If people want to think that performance was for our country, that's fine,'' says Mark Pavelich, the small, quiet forward who set up Eruzione's winning goal. ''But the truth of the matter is, it was just a hockey game. There was enough to worry about without worrying about Afghanistan or winning it for the pride and glory of the United States. We wanted to win it for ourselves.''
Not ourselves as in I, me, mine. Ourselves the team. Individually, they were fine, dedicated sportsmen. Some will have excellent pro hockey careers. Others will bust. But collectively they were a transcendent lot. For seven months they pushed each other on and pulled each other along, from rung to rung, until for two weeks in February they -- a bunch of unheralded amateurs -- became the best hockey team in the world. The best team. The whole was greater than the sum of its parts by a mile. And they were not just a team, they were a perfect reflection of how Americans wanted to perceive themselves. By gum, it's still in us! It was certainly still in them. So for reminding us of some things, and for briefly brightening the days of 220 million people, we doff our caps to them, in toto, Sportsmen of the Year.
Leadership, of course, was the key. These guys didn't descend on their skates from a mountaintop preaching teamwork and brotherhood. Are you kidding? They were all stars, la creme de la creme. Many had egos yea big and heads the size of pumpkins. Fifteen of the 20 had been drafted by NHL clubs and considered the Games a stepping-stone to the big time. They could showcase their individual talents, prove they could handle a grueling schedule, and, thank-you-bub, where do I sign? Herb Brooks, the coach, made it the most painful stepping-stone of their lives.
''He treated us all the same,'' says every last member of the team. ''Rotten.''
Karl Malden, the actor who plays Brooks in the forthcoming ABC-TV movie on the team, Miracle on Ice, has never met Brooks, but he has studied him on videotape, especially his eyes. ''I'd hate to meet him in a dark alley,'' Malden says. ''I think he's a little on the neurotic side. Maybe more than a little. Any moment you think he's going to jump out of his skin.''
That's one man's opinion. Malden, that hard-boiled scowler who has no pity in his heart for anyone leaving home without American Express traveler's checks, was brought to tears not once but twice by the sight of goaltender Jim Craig asking ''Where's my father?'' after the team had beaten Finland to win the gold medal, first on television, then months later on videotape. Truly, this team plucked many different heartstrings.
Brooks was as sentimental as a stone throughout. After the victory over Finland, he shook hands with two or three people behind the bench, then disappeared into the dressing room. Says Malden, ''He could have smiled just once, during the game with Norway or Romania. But he didn't. Then after working seven months for something, the moment he gets it he walks away from it. You tell me, is that a normal man?''
All right. No. But Malden is wrong about one thing. If you were to meet Brooks in a dark alley, you wouldn't be frightened. He would barely notice you. His mind would be a million miles away. You'd wonder where. He's a driven perfectionist. His wife, Patty, an attractive, bubbly woman, recalls seeing their daughter, Kelly, crawling around and straightening rugs when she was 10 months old. Patty groaned, ''Oh, my god, I've got another one!'' Brooks is also a brilliant motivator and, like all great coaches, an innovator. He motivates largely through fear. Schneider, who also played under Brooks for three years at the University of Minnesota, says, ''He pats you on the back but always lets you know he has the knife in the other hand.''
Significantly, the pat is on the back, the knife is front and center. Brooks isn't one to sneak around confrontation. ''I gave our guys every opportunity to call me an honest son of a bitch,'' he says. ''Hockey players are going to call you a son of a bitch at times anyway, in emotion. But they could call me an honest one because everything was up front.''
They do curse him, and it requires very little emotion. But most -- if not all -- of the players realize that if Brooks had been any different, they couldn't possibly have accomplished what they did. ''It was a lonely year for me,'' says Brooks. ''Very lonely. But it was by design. I never was close to my university players because they were so young. But this team had everything I wanted to be close to, everything I admired: the talent, the psychological makeup, the personality. But I had to stay away. If I couldn't know all, I didn't want to know one because there wasn't going to be any favoritism.''
Players like Phil Verchota, who played for Brooks for four years at Minnesota and then all of last year, have still never heard so much as a ''Nice day today, eh, Phil?'' out of Brooks. ''Say hi, and you'll get hi back,'' Verchota says. ''Not even that sometimes.'' The man scared the daylights out of them. Gave them the willies. He wasn't human. But he could coach, and they never questioned that for a second.
Which isn't to say they never questioned his methods. (His obsession, of course, was a given.) One of the devices Brooks used to select his final team was a psychological test of more than 300 questions that he had specially prepared. He was looking for a certain type of player, and the test was designed to show how certain people would react under stress. He thought he'd try it. There would be 68 players at the August tryout camp in Colorado Springs, and he had to cut them down to 26 in a matter of days. He would leave no stone unturned.
One player -- an eventual Olympic hero -- said, ''Herb, I'm not taking this. I don't believe in that stuff.''
''Why's that?'' Brooks asked.
''Oh, it's a lot of bull, psychology.''
''Well, wait a minute. Here's what it might show. It's not as important as what goes on out on the ice, but it's something we can use. I don't want to miss anything.''
''I don't want to take it,'' the player said.
Brooks nodded. ''O.K. Fine. You just took it. You told me everything I wanted to know.'' He was steaming.
''How'd I do?''
The next day the player took the test.
What kind of competitor was Brooks looking for? Big strong kids who could skate through a wall? Guys who could fly? Who could pay the price? Who could make the puck tap dance? Good lord, spare us. Brooks wanted young, educated kids who were willing to break down stereotypes, were willing to throw old wives' tales about conditioning and tactics out the window. He wanted open- minded people who could skate. ''The ignorant people, the self-centered people, the people who don't want to expand their thoughts, they're not going to be the real good athletes,'' Brooks says. ''They're not going to be able to keep that particular moment, that game, that season in the proper perspective. I believe it. Understand this world around you.''
When Brooks talks about ''ignorant, self-centered people who don't want to expand their thoughts,'' he's describing 90% of the National Hockey League. For better or worse, most of the players trying out for the Olympic team were hoping to jump from there to the pros. So they wanted to show the NHL scouts that they could do it the NHL way -- ugh, me fight, me chop, me muck. That doesn't work in international hockey, and Brooks would have none of it. The players had to learn a new style of play in seven months. In simplest terms, they had to learn what any touch-football player knows by the fifth grade -- that crisscross patterns and laterals are more effective than the plunge. They had to learn not to retaliate, which is almost un-American.
All that was easy because weaving, passing, holding on to the puck is simply a more enjoyable way to play the game. Smashing that stereotype was a cinch. But conditioning? There is no mind in the world that is open enough to enjoy the tortures of Herbies.
Herbies are a relatively common form of wind sprint that all hockey players do, but only the Olympians call them by that name. End line to blue line and back, to red line and back, to far blue line and back, all the way down and back. Rest. Two or three sets of Herbies at the end of practice is about as much punishment as most coaches are willing to dish out. The day before a game, it's a rare coach indeed who'll submit his players to even one Herbie, and by the time you reach the NHL, your Herbie days are pretty much over. Hey, we're in the bigs now. We play ourselves into shape.
Bull. In the 1979 Challenge Cup the Soviets skated rings around the NHL All- Stars late in the games. The Russians can do Herbies till the cows come home. They skate as hard in the last shift of a game as they do in the first, and it has nothing to do with emotion or adrenaline. They have always been the best-conditioned hockey players in the world.
Peter Stastny, the Czechoslovakian Olympic star who defected last summer to the NHL's Quebec Nordiques, says the one thing that most shocked the international hockey community about the performance of the young Americans (average age: 22) was their conditioning. The Soviets had always been at one level, with everybody else at a level below. Suddenly here are a bunch of Americans, for heaven's sake, whom the Russians are huffing and puffing to keep up with in the third period. Who are those guys? In the seven games played in the Olympics, the U.S. team was outscored nine goals to six in the first period but outscored its opponents 16-3 in the third. What got into them? Steroids?
''It's a selling job,'' says Brooks. ''When you want to push people who are living a good life in an affluent society, you have to do a selling job.'' The sales pitch went like this: Skate or you're off the team. You're gone. No pro contract. No big money. Gone.
In his own words, Brooks was ''smart enough to know I was dumb.'' How do you get a hockey player in shape the way the Russians were in shape? Nobody knew, not in the hockey world. So Brooks went to coaches of track and swimming -- areas in which American athletes have been trained to compete successfully on the international level -- and found out about anaerobics, flexibility exercises, underloading, overloading, pulse rates, the works. Then he transferred this information to his players, who, because they were educated, because they were open-minded, were willing to listen. Willing to give it a try. Sure, we'll run up and down that hill to the Holiday Inn after practices. Sure. We'll do another Herbie. Twenty-five minutes of sprints today without pucks? Sure, we'll do it. And for six months they hated Brooks's guts.
There was a moment of truth for this team. A moment when they became one. It was back in September 1979 when they were playing a game in Norway. It ended in a 4-4 tie, and Brooks, to say the least, was dissatisfied. ''We're going to skate sometime today,'' he told them afterward. Then he sent them back onto the ice.
Forward Dave Silk recalls it this way: ''There were 30 or 40 people still in the stands. First they thought we were putting on a skating exhibition, and they cheered. After a while they realized the coach was mad at us for not playing hard, and they booed. Then they got bored and left. Then the workers got bored, and they turned off the lights.''
Doing Herbies in the dark … it's terrifying. But they did them. Schneider happened to have been thrown out of the game, and he had already changed into his street clothes. He was watching in horror as his teammates went up and back, up and back. Again and again and again. But instead of feeling reprieved, he felt guilty. ''Should I get my skates on, Patty?'' he asked assistant coach Craig Patrick. ''Cool it, Buzz,'' Patrick replied.
It ended at last, and Brooks had the players coast slowly around the rink so that the lactic acid could work itself out of their muscles. And that was when forward Mark Johnson broke his stick over the boards. Mark Johnson, who made the team go. Mark Johnson, who was its hardest worker, its smartest player. Mark Johnson, whom Brooks never, ever had to yell at. And you know what Brooks said -- screamed -- after skating those kids within an inch of their lives? ''If I ever see a kid hit a stick on the boards again, I'll skate you till you die!'' They believed him. And they would have died, just to spite him. Says Silk, ''I can remember times when I was so mad at him I tried to skate so hard I'd collapse, so I could say to him, 'See what you did?' '' But they weren't an all-star team anymore. They were together in this, all for one. And; Brooks was the enemy. And don't think he didn't know it. It was a lonely year by design, all right.
''He knew exactly where to quit,'' says John Harrington, a forward whose place on the team was never secure. ''He'd push you right to the limit where you were ready to say, 'I've had it. I'm throwing it in' -- and then he'd back off.''
For Brooks, the trick was knowing where that limit was for every player. They may have been a team, but they were still 20 different personalities. The first time Brooks saw Silk skate at the Colorado Springs training camp, he took him aside and said, ''I don't know if you can't skate or you won't skate, but I intend to find out.'' Silk had been an All-America at Boston University and had the reputation of playing his best in the biggest games. Brooks wanted him on the Olympic team, but he knew that Silk needed more speed. So he promised to ride him, to embarrass him, to rant and rave at him all season.
Issue date: Feb. 21, 1994